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What are Delirium Tremens?

Dr. Gerardo Sison

Medically reviewed by

Dr. Gerardo Sison

April 1, 2019

More often than not, delirium tremens, characterized by seizures and hallucinations, require a host of different precautionary measures and treatments, because without help they can lead to further injury or even brain damage. Delirium tremens are considered a medical emergency, and should always be treated as such—seek help immediately if someone is experiencing them.

Alcohol is among the most dangerous drugs when it comes to withdrawal symptoms, and among the most severe of those symptoms are delirium tremens. When a person drinks too much, they’re often met with the discomfort of a hangover the next day. Now if that same person drinks enough alcohol to become physically dependent, or develop alcoholism, a morning hangover can quickly become several weeks of withdrawal symptoms which can range in severity from insomnia to seizures.

What Are Delirium Tremens?

Delirium tremens are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal (acute alcohol withdrawal), they’re often characterized by intense seizures and hallucinations. A person who drinks heavily will begin to react differently to alcohol than somebody who only drinks moderately, and as they continue to drink, the amount they need to become intoxicated increases. Meanwhile, the neurotransmitters in their brain and nervous system have started to adapt to greater amounts of alcohol—and soon this person begins to build up a tolerance to alcohol.

From a publication by the National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) “as tolerance increases, drinking may escalate, putting a heavy drinker at risk for a number of health problems—including alcohol dependence. Even as the brain becomes tolerant to alcohol, other changes in the brain may increase some people’s sensitivity to alcohol. Desire for alcohol may transition into a pathological craving for these effects.”

As alcohol abuse continues over a period of time, you’ll likely have withdrawals on a regular basis. If you frequently experience withdrawals, you’ll be at a greater risk of having delirium tremens. Another risk of experiencing delirium tremens is “if you drink 4 to 5 pints of wine, 7 to 8 pints of beer, or 1 pint of liquor every day for several months” (U.S. National Library of Medicine). Delirium tremens are also more common for someone who has abused alcohol for 10 years or more.

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Hallucinations, Seizures, And Other Symptoms Of Delirium Tremens

The symptoms of delirium tremens vary from person to person and greatly depend on factors like age, amount of alcohol consumed, length of time drinking, and how much a person has eaten. As mentioned, delirium tremens are the most severe form of alcohol withdrawal—which generally peak between 24 and 72 hours after a person’s last drink.

Delirium tremens, unlike normal alcohol withdrawals, can begin 7 to 10 days after a person stops drinking. They can be anything from intense hallucinations, insomnia, and generally get worse as they persist.

Some of the most common symptoms of delirium tremens are:

  • Delirium, which is sudden severe confusion
  • Body tremors
  • Changes in mental function
  • Agitation, irritability
  • Deep sleep that lasts for a day or longer
  • Excitement or fear
  • Hallucinations (seeing or feeling things that are not really there)
  • Bursts of energy
  • Quick mood changes
  • Restlessness, excitement
  • Sensitivity to light, sound, touch
  • Stupor, sleepiness, fatigue

Seizures (may occur without other symptoms of DTs):

  • Most common in the first 12 to 48 hours after the last drink
  • Most common in people with past complications from alcohol withdrawal
  • Usually generalized tonic-clonic seizures

What Is The Best Way To Detox From Alcohol?

If you’re drinking enough alcohol to experience delirium tremens upon quitting, you’re greatly advised to seek help with an inpatient alcohol detox. If they aren’t treated properly, delirium tremens can result in chronic memory disorders like Wernicke-Korsakoff syndrome.

Furthermore, “disease processes or events that accompany acute alcohol withdrawal (AW) can cause significant illness and death. Some patients experience seizures, which may increase in severity with subsequent AW episodes” (NIAAA).

At this point you probably recognize that alcohol detoxification is a dangerous road to travel alone, and it often requires the guidance of professionals or even the help of a medication such as naltrexone to prevent relapse or sometimes a benzodiazepine is used to treat the anxiety and insomnia. Two other medications used for alcoholic relapse prevention are disulfiram, and acamprosate.

When a person is detoxing under the care of medical professionals, their fluid and nutrition intake can be monitored while they’re subjected to fewer stressors, triggers, and temptations. Basically an inpatient detoxification helps a person treat their physical addiction to alcohol, and the behavioral therapy to follow can help treat the mental addiction to alcohol.

Treatment For Alcohol Use Disorders And Alcoholism

For a lot of people, the idea of quitting on their own goes out the window after several failed attempts, or with the fear of serious withdrawals. This may sound like you, but you can increase your chances to stop drinking with the help of an inpatient treatment program for alcohol offered at a rehab center. Some of the most common modalities used to treat alcoholism and alcohol use disorders are:

  • Detoxification
  • Inpatient and Outpatient Rehab
  • Individual and Group Therapy
  • Cognitive Behavioral Therapy
  • Dialectical Behavior Therapy
  • Mindfulness and Stress Management
  • 12 Step Groups like Alcoholics Anonymous
  • Relapse Prevention
  • Aftercare Support

How To Find Help And Treatment For Alcohol Addiction

If you’re interested in learning more about delirium tremens and alcohol abuse, Contact today. Our addiction specialists are standing by to take your call. Remember, your privacy is important to us, and your call will be completely confidential.

National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism - Complications of Alcohol Withdrawal

U.S. National Library of Medicine - Alcohol Withdrawals

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